Dead Bodies are Not Neutral Objects. Report from a conversation about dead bodies and their place in museums.

The old photograph shows a mother, looking straight at us, with a child in her lap. The small face of the child is turned upward and the mouth is sightly open, embodying that deep and completely relaxed baby sleep every parent learns to recognise as the body of the child suddenly becomes very heavy your arms. Only, this child is not sleeping. This child is dead. Photographs like this, a last memento of the child before burial, were common in the 19th century and are still made today (although today the practice of taking and showing these photos is no longer as public, nor is it as socially acceptable). Photographs like this remind us that dead bodies are not neutral objects, and that separating from them can be emotional, painful and problematic. Photographs like this also remind us of how our attitudes to the dead are culturally shaped and experienced. Photographs like this can help us untangle why some people feel that it is problematic to keep human remains in museums.

“The body of the dead, is something onto which people project meaning and emotion, and it is culturally varying how that projection happens and at what stage that projection changes. So when we talk about repatriation and reburial, what in the eyes of an archaeologist or a biological anthropologist may be material for research may still very well be perceived by other stakeholders as an individual to which they owe the duties of a proper burial.”

This fundamental realisation was one point of departure for a K-samtal – a structured conversation – on the topic of repatriation organised by The Swedish National Heritage Board on Dec 18th 2020 and led by Kicki Eldh and Ingela Chef Holmberg. The conversation was part of a continuing effort to support Swedish Museums in their work to develop policies and practices for curation and repatriation that live up to “an exemplary international standard.” Part of this effort has also been the development of support documents for the care for human remains in museum collections and in how to handle repatriation cases.

The conversation between Estelle Lazer (University of Sydney), and Liv Nilsson Stutz (me), was led by Kicki Eldh (for a sound file of the full conversation in English, please click here) and drew on international examples to unpack the complex issues of repatriation, indigenous rights, identity politics, the history of science, colonialism and research. The conversation came to circle back to questions such as “What does it mean to keep to an exemplary standard?”; “What can we learn from international experiences?”; and “What theoretical inquiries can help us problematize the issue, and how can we move from academic discourse to action and solutions?

Estelle Lazer shared her experiences from both Australia and Pompeii, and I drew on my work studying and analysing the repatriation debate in the US and NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act)

“We need to stop thinking about repatriation as a problem to be solved and instead approach it as an opportunity to learn.”

Both Estelle and I agreed that while we can learn from the international experiences, there is not a golden standard that easily can be transferred from one cultural, historical and political context to another. Instead we must educate ourselves and approach the issue with flexibility. To aim for an exemplary standard must be to learn from experiences and competences, and work toward developing legal instruments that are at the same level as international standards, but that are also tailored to fit the Swedish context.

We must also learn how to be critical. Repatriation cases are not always unproblematic. When approaching these complex issues it is important to be aware of this. But first of all we need to become better listeners, because a successful repatriation is not a process that strives only for closure, but one that is approached as an opportunity for collaboration. In other words, we need to stop thinking about repatriation as a problem to be solved, and instead approach it as an opportunity to learn.

Liv Nilsson Stutz

Caption to figure: Mother with dead child, 19th century, probably American. Art Institute of Chicago, CCO Public Domain